For the second time in a week, a symbol of hatred was discovered on the National Mall in Washington, via a noose placed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on May 31.
Founding Director of the NMAAHC, Lonnie Bunch, said the incident reminds all of the challenges African Americans continue to face. Those very challenges are highlighted within the museum’s history galleries, where the noose was reportedly discovered.
“The noose has long represented a deplorable act of cowardice and depravity—a symbol of extreme violence for African Americans,” Bunch said in a statement. “This was a horrible act, but it is a stark reminder of why our work is so important.”
Law enforcement in D.C. is currently investigating the incident, which followed a similar event at the Hirshhorn Museum, which is also on the National Mall. On May 27, security guards discovered a noose hanging from a tree on the grounds of the Hirshhorn Museum. In response to that incident, Mayor Muriel Bowser said it was an “unfortunate irony that a sign of intimidation/ignorance would be placed on our National Mall where Americans of all walks of life come to learn more about who we are, celebrate our diversity and leave inspired to improve their lives, communities and country.”
Across the D.C. and Maryland region, nooses — considered a hate symbol by the the Anti-Defamation League — have been popping up in recent weeks. Earlier this spring, bananas strung up by nooses peppered the campus of American University, also in the nation’s capital. The hanging fruits had been emblazoned with the letters of the Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc. In recent months, nooses have popped up at the University of Maryland and outside of a middle school in Crofton, MD.
The country as a whole has also seen a rise in racist imagery and violence: this week, the word “Nigger” was spray painted on the Los Angeles home of NBA superstar LeBron James. Last week, two men died after being stabbed by a man who had been verbally attacking two Black teens, one of whom was Muslim, in Portland. A Bowie State University student was also killed in what is believed to be a race-related incident in Maryland. And a man in California was recently charged with a hate crime after attacking a Black man with a machete.
Racism in America is not a new phenomenon, but tensions have been running high over the past few years, with spikes aligning with the election of the nation’s first Black President and shifts in the country’s demographic makeup. Advocates also noted surges in Anti-Semitic and racist incidents throughout the 2016 presidential election, during which some accused then-candidate Trump of dog whistling to White nationalists in his calls for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S. The Anti-Defamation League found increases in anti-Semitic incidents in both 2016 and 2017. Since the election, the SPLC says there have been reports of 1,800 hate-related incidents across the country.
“When Obama was elected, the punditry kind of went crazy with all of these questions about, well, ‘do we now live in a post-racial America now that we’ve elected an African American to the White House?'” says Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “With the election of Donald Trump and with the rise of the alt-right, I think the answer to that question is clear. We do not live in a post-racial America.”
The racism that many thought was left behind after the Civil Rights Movement, Lenz says, is coming out of the shadows and into the mainstream.
The noose specifically itself harkens back to one of the darkest chapters in the post-Reconstruction era of American history. For decades, Black Americans were strung up by their necks and hung from trees across the south often for little more than having been born with dark skin.
Journalist and Civil Rights activist Ida B. Wells, who created some of the most extensive documentations of lynchings, deemed them the country’s “national crime.” Some 4,075 African Americans are estimated to have been lynched between 1877 and 1950, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. As a result, the noose—a looped rope with a knot that tightens when pulled—joined the swastika and the robes of the Ku Klux Klan as a hate symbol.
“The noose has become the new burning cross,” Jack Shuler wrote in his 2014 book, The Thirteenth Turn: The History of the Noose. “The ready symbol for expressing hate and fostering a climate of fear in workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods throughout the United States.”
The Associated Press reported that news of a noose at the African American History Museum did not stop visitors from exploring its halls. And Lenz says its appearance is in some ways a “lesson” to those who are passionate about civil rights.
“In some respects it’s a tremendous lesson for those who value civil rights. What it says is this conflict is not over,” Lenz said. “There are people in this country that have such hatred in their hearts that the advances that we’ve all seen and celebrated are still seen as an affront to an America that we thought we’d left behind.”